Q&A

‘We Are Telegraphing Abandonment’

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy slams the Trump administration for withholding aid to Lebanon.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, speaks following a vote in the House of Representatives on ending U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen, in Washington on April 4. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The White House last week quietly released $105 million in military aid to Lebanon that had languished for months despite approval from the U.S. Congress, the Department of Defense, and the State Department, leading some lawmakers to compare it to the frozen Ukraine aid at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

So far, no evidence has emerged of an alternate agenda. It appears the hold was the result of an internal dispute between some officials at the National Security Council—who believed the aid would benefit the Iran-backed Hezbollah representatives in the Lebanese government and military—and the majority of officials at the Pentagon and State Department, who believe funding the Lebanese Armed Forces is essential to countering Iranian influence in the country.

But to some, the administration’s monthslong hold on critical military aid is yet another sign that the United States is abandoning its partners in their time of need.

As anti-Iran protests in Lebanon continue, a steady U.S. commitment to the Lebanese Armed Forces is even more critical, says Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, who visited Lebanon last week and has been pressing the administration since October to either release the funds or explain the delay. Murphy spoke with Foreign Policy about the significance of the aid, the anti-Iran protests sweeping the Middle East, the NATO summit this week, and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: You’ve been very vocal about the administration until recently holding up military aid for Lebanon. Why is this such a big deal?

Chris Murphy: It’s a very exciting and worrying time in Lebanon today. These protests are organic, they are national, and they are multi-ethnic and sectarian. There’s a lot of good that can come from these protests, but Hezbollah is going to move to try to shut them down because one of the demands of these protesters is for Hezbollah and Iran to have less power in Lebanon.

What is so concerning is that just at the moment when the Lebanese Armed Forces are doing the hard work of protecting the protesters from Hezbollah, the United States is undermining the military. The military is the stabilizing force in Lebanon today and the United States should be wrapping our arms around them. Instead, we are telegraphing abandonment. As if we needed to make more mistakes in the Middle East, we’ve managed to make them. This was such an easy play for the U.S., support the protestors and support the people who are protecting the protestors, and we managed to even screw that up.

FP: There were some concerns from members of Congress and the National Security Council that the money would benefit Hezbollah. Do you have concerns about that?

CM: That can’t be. The money is not going to the parliament, the money is going directly to the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces], and the LAF is the counterweight to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yes, the Lebanese military is open to Christians, Shia, and Sunni. It’s run by a Christian general, but there are thousands of Shia who are in the LAF, and some of them likely have some connections to Hezbollah. But that’s just Lebanon.

The narrative here is clear: If you want to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, then you need to support the LAF. What is most vexing to me is that there’s been no rationale for the withholding of the aid articulated to Lebanon, nobody even knows what the reason for the hold is, so there is nothing to argue over or contest.

FP: No one in Lebanon was told why the aid was held up?

CM: Our embassy said that. The Lebanese officials made clear that they have been given no reason for the hold. But our embassy also had no reason for the hold, so when Gen. [Michel] Aoun [Lebanon’s president] is asking the U.S. ambassador about why the money is being withheld, she has no authorization to give a reason.

FP: Why is there such a heated debate over this aid?

CM: Sen. Ted Cruz has a bill to condition funding for the LAF on the removal of Hezbollah from the political process in Lebanon. My understanding is that there is at least one person at the [National Security Council] who wants to punish Lebanon for having a political relationship with Hezbollah. There is no doubt that Hezbollah plays a role in Lebanese politics, and there’s also no doubt that it should be U.S. policy to try to push Hezbollah out of the political process in Lebanon. But the way you do that is by empowering the LAF rather than disempowering them.

FP: On a different subject, another issue you’ve been vocal about is the conflict in Yemen. Recently there have been some signs of progress. Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

CM: I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel, but at least I see a tunnel. I’ve been a very vocal critic of Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab Emirates] regarding their miserable conduct of the war in Yemen, but we’ve started to see some progress. The attacks by the Houthis and against the Houthis are decreasing, there’s a new, fragile government in the south, and there may be a window to a political process. But I continue to believe that there will be no success politically in Yemen unless the U.S. gets directly involved. Right now, we are staying on the far periphery of these political talks, and I think that is a mistake.

FP: What do you make of the unrest in Iran? Is the turmoil a sign that the U.S. maximum pressure campaign is working?

CM: It’s a sign of how worried the Iranian regime is about the power of these protests. This appears to be a brutal crackdown, and it’s a sign of how serious these protests were. The Trump administration has not articulated that its goal is regime change, so I have no clue what the administration’s Iran policy is. My guess is that they make it up every morning. My guess is that they want Iran to come back to the negotiating table, and we don’t seem to be a lot closer to that reality. Instead, what is happening in Iran is that the hard-liners are gaining more and more power, and they are going to be the least likely partners in a new negotiators.

The danger all along has been that this maximum pressure campaign was going to push to the sidelines the very people that … would be most likely to effectuate a successful negotiation

FP: So you think the protests are making the Iran problem worse?

CM: I think there’s two sides to this. The protests could push the Iranian regime to come to the negotiating table to try to get some sanctions relief. But the protests also could empower the hard-liners who are the ones actually running the show today in Iran, and those hard-liners have no interest in negotiating.

FP: Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, has said he is concerned that Iran will launch another attack. Do you agree?

CM: It’s been a concern for me from the start. I think the danger is that the more you back Iran up against a wall, the more likely it is that there is going to be a breakout of hostilities. Meanwhile, Iran has no clue whether they have a negotiating partner. Some days the administration says they want to negotiate with no preconditions; other days they say that Iran has to come to the table and meet all 12 of their requirements. So they’ve given Iran no way out, and as the Iranians get more and more desperate it’s more and more possible that they will act out in a way that will force us to respond militarily.

FP: The situation in Syria seems to have stabilized somewhat, but Turkey has not faced any consequences for the incursion. Will Congress take a stand?

CM: One of the most interesting takeaways from the last week is that we’re back in Syria again. It’s not super clear why we stepped aside for the Turks if we weren’t actually prepared to leave. The president made an unconscionable mistake, but I think our focus has to be how do we best manage the situation moving forward, how do we make sure that Turkey and their proxy forces aren’t targeting civilians and aren’t forcibly resettling people into parts of northeast Syria? That’s where Congress can be helpful, Congress can pass some legislation that creates consequences for Turkey’s future behavior.

At the very least Turkey needs to face consequences for the purchase of the S-400, I don’t know how you let a NATO ally walk away scot-free from doing business with the Russians that compromises our collective security. It’s an open question as to whether you can sanction Turkey for moving into northeast Syria given that the president invited them to do it, but I do think at the very least we’ve got to make it clear to all NATO allies that if you start doing business with Russia there’s going to be some consequences.

If we were living in a normal world, the alliance would carefully calibrate the message that it’s sending to Turkey together. But the NATO alliance is incapable of acting as a unit today because of President Trump, so we are stuck operating in a less than optimal position given the inability of the alliance to speak with one voice.

FP: Turning to Iraq, the United States has recently been drawing down its diplomatic presence there, including cutting embassy staff. What is the impact of this?

CM: I think we are seeing the consequences of the U.S. drawdown today. Reports suggest we have as few as 6 political diplomats in the embassy today, and it would normally be during a crisis like this where the Iraqi government was making grave mistake after grave mistake, it would normally be U.S. diplomatic power that would try to help right the situation. But without any functional diplomatic presence in Baghdad today, it’s not surprising that the Iraqis are making very bad mistake after very bad mistake. If Iraq does descend into civil war, the decision to gut our embassy will go down as one of the worst mistakes the U.S. has ever made in the Middle East. In the moment we understood the reason for the drawdown to be an active threat from Iran against U.S. personnel in Baghdad, but that was three months ago. You cannot credibly say that we don’t have diplomats in Baghdad today because of an Iranian threat—by now we could’ve figured out a way to adjust and protect our diplomats from that threat as we did for the majority of the Iraq War.

FP: We have also cut our diplomatic presence in Syria over time, even before the incursion. What impact does this have?

CM: We just fail to understand the power that experienced and empowered U.S. diplomats can have in the region, and the fact that we have very few of them throughout the region is part of why we are losing influence by the day.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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